UFC owners prefer ESPN for new TV deal, but ‘3 different platforms’ already showing interest

The window for the UFC to ink a new broadcast rights deal officially opens in January 2025, but talks about the next contract start even sooner.

ESPN currently owns the rights to all UFC content, including pay-per-view broadcasts, after signing a seven-year deal with the promotion following a stint on FOX. The partnership between the UFC and ESPN has been lucrative for both sides, especially for the growth of ESPN+ as the streaming service has grown exponentially since becoming the primary home for the MMA organization.

That said, TKO Group Holdings president Mark Shapiro recently revealed that multiple bidders have already inquired about retaining the broadcast fights for the UFC once negotiations begin later this year.

“It is our preference to stay at Disney, because of this history,” Shapiro said at the Morgan Stanley Tech, Media and Telecom conference. “But we’ve had impromptu three different platforms inquire about that window that you’re talking about and when we might be able to sit down with them to discuss moving to a different platform, which we will do if we can’t get the right deal.

“But the window opens in January. There’s no reason we can’t start talking about it earlier.”

It’s impossible to know which three platforms that Shapiro is referencing, though a number of streaming outlets have gotten more involved in live sports programming in recent years. Amazon’s Prime Video, for example, paid $1 billion per year to obtain the exclusive rights to the NFL’s Thursday night football schedule. Apple shelled out $250 million per season to bring Major League Soccer to the platform.

Netflix, which has traditionally stayed away from live sports programming, has even reversed course with the upcoming Jake Paul-Mike Tyson boxing match, not to mention a massive $5 billion deal to bring WWE’s flagship series Monday Night Raw to the streaming service for the next decade.

Shapiro never referenced Netflix by name when discussing the UFC, but he did talk about the network expanding into more live event programming after signing the deal with WWE.

“This is a landmark deal,” Shapiro said about WWE’s contract with Netflix. “This is an industry changing deal. This is a transformative deal. It’s Netflix. [Netflix always said], ‘We’re not going to get into live sports,’ and even though WWE is quasi-live sports, ‘We’re not going to get into it,’ and everybody was waiting on when the code would be cracked, and we cracked the code.

“It’s $5 billion over 10 years, and it’s highly visible revenue. It’s high-margin revenue. It’s locked in. It’s recurring. We’ve de-risked the whole merger with that alone. Netflix itself has got unbelievable reach and scale globally, it’s a global deal. They’re a marketing powerhouse. People forget that.”

With Netflix dabbling in combat sports for the upcoming fight with Paul and Tyson, it’s entirely possible that the UFC could be next on the wishlist.

Still, Shapiro says that the UFC’s relationship remains strong at ESPN, especially given the way that the two brands have found real synergy since first partnering.

“ESPN and Disney are the greatest partners you could ever have,” Shapiro said. “If we can replicate that at Netflix [with WWE], we’re going to be golden. They get the sport. They’re fans of the sport. It was Bob Iger, frankly, that saw the vision. It was his decision to go bite off all the UFC, including the pay-per-views, but [ESPN chairman] Jimmy Pitaro and Burke Magnus and [Rosalyn] Durant, who now runs programming, are huge fans of the UFC and they support it in every way.

“So social, SportsCenter coverage, short-form content, long-form content, and they work with us on scheduling about trying to get us the best windows. They want more UFC, not less. By the way, they have a pretty crowded sheet of programming. Their schedule, their calendar is nip and tuck. What I would tell you is we love the marketing strength.”

Shapiro acknowledges that ESPN hasa lot on its plate in the coming months as the NBA also seeks out a new broadcast rights deal that is expected to dwarf a previous contract that was split across numerous media partners. That could impact the UFC, depending on who ends up landing the NBA and where another outlet may suddenly need more content.

“We’re curious what happens with the NBA,” Shapiro said. “That will have an impact on us. Are they getting more content? Are they getting less content?”

“I’m anxious to see where this all goes. ESPN flagship, what happens at ESPN+, obviously the cable bundle is completely imploding, ABC’s kind of had a little resurgence right now. So we’re going to work with them behind the scenes to figure out what the next chapter of our partnership looks like.”

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